PlacesBen Jackson2 Comments

In the shadow of the volcano

PlacesBen Jackson2 Comments
In the shadow of the volcano

The town where my sister was born is long gone.

It disappeared in a shroud of burning ash more than 20 years ago.

At that time, the inhabitants of Rabaul picked up what remained of their lives – in many cases, not much – and moved some 30 kilometres down the coast to start again.

Today, the new hub Kokopo seems like it has always been at the centre of activity.

The streets are lined with department stores, hardware houses, banks and supermarkets. Youngsters spill out on the streets each weekday after school to buy drinks and food. They walk along laughing and talking together.

This is the only life they’ve ever experienced, and it’s a good one, but many of the older generation long for the days in the shadow of the volcano.

Much of old Rabaul remains decimated by ash.

Much of old Rabaul remains decimated by ash.

To get to Rabaul we set out from Kokopo with Tabata - who is our driver, tour guide and local facilitator.

Ash still blackens the road that enters the old town, but on the outskirts the vegetation has returned and so have the people.

I can sense Tabata’s pride as he points out the flurry of new stores; a fresh produce market; and a police station.

A new Rabaul is rising from the ashes. It is a tribute to the local culture of resilience and a longstanding connection to nature, which have both been honed over many thousands of years.

The road turns entirely black and the new buildings stop as we approach Tavuvur, the volcano responsible for old Rabaul’s destruction.

Tabata’s eyes glaze a little as he points out landmarks from his youth.

“There’s the outdoor cinema,” he says.

“Here’s the Commonwealth Bank.”

“This is the community swimming pool.”

He refers to these places in the present tense, but I can’t see them. They now exist only in his memory.

The heat from the sun and the volcano multiplies at the top of Tavuvur.

The heat from the sun and the volcano multiplies at the top of Tavuvur.

Tavuvur is ever-present - sitting on its throne above us, looking stout, fierce and bleak.

Tabata’s son-in-law Dennis guides us now by foot and we edge along the coast to the base of the volcano.

There are no trees here; just the hot sun, volcanic soil and sizzling craters filled with sea water.

The ascent is steep, slippery and short, and at the top the sulfuric heat emanating from the earth matches the scorching sun.

Dennis says something in his dialect to Tavuvur.

The language is unfamiliar, but the prayer of respect to the forces of nature is unmistakable.

I ask him what he is saying and he smiles at me.

“It’s nothing,” he says, “don’t worry – a lot of tourists come up here.”

I’m not superstitious, but I share his awe, admiration and too hope that today is not the day Tavuvur decides to remind us of its power.

As we look out the panorama reveals the lush and ancient jungles across the bay, the fledgling revitalisation of life in Rabaul and the lunar-like path we just followed.

It is the Earth at its most raw. It is destruction and creation.

For too long the fossil-fueled Western mindset has been that we are distinct from nature and that the environment should conform to the requirements of its human inhabitants.

The ghosts of old Rabaul town are a reminder that this is, and always has been, an impossible notion.